Is Pakistan's Army A Paper Tiger?


The Army is the most powerful force in Pakistan. So how has a rural insurgency armed with basic weapons managed to overrun so much of the country? That is the question that Pakistanis, as well as many in the international community, are now asking.

Last year alone the armed forces soaked up US$5 billion, or 20 per cent, of Pakistan’s national budget according to statistics released to the national parliament. The actual figure is likely to be much higher because the Army runs a parallel state, complete with its own economy, which has no parliamentary oversight.

Pakistan’s civilian leaders have good reason to avoid scrutinising the army too much. Every one of Pakistan’s democratically elected leaders has been forced to abdicate by the army. A general has directly ruled the country for 34 of its 62 years of existence. Consider also the 650,000 active soldiers, with another half million in reserve, and toeing the Army line becomes a political necessity.

Yet none of this explains the Army’s inability to rein in the Taliban. The answer to that perplexing question may lie in the organisation’s history.

Part of the problem is that the Army is not equipped to fight an insurgency so much as the conventional, and more powerful, forces of India. Operations in the tribal areas have as a result been imprecise, leading to the total destruction of many villages, thousands of deaths and up to a million displaced.

Civilian suffering like this creates a groundswell of support for the Taliban. But there have been only limited attempts to re-engage with communities caught up in the violence. Instead, the Army and Government authorities often sign peace deals with the Taliban to prevent a political vacuum forming after hostilities cease. Over the past four years, the peace deals have always broken down, and the Taliban has used the hiatus to regroup and rearm.

The most recent peace deal, over the Swat valley, is on the verge of collapse over continued Taliban operations in neighbouring areas.

There are lingering doubts about the Army’s desire to combat the Taliban too, after it recently sent a lightly armed squad of paramilitaries to fight the Taliban in the Buner valley, just below Swat, even though the region is close to the nation’s capital of Islamabad.

Another factor is ethnicity: many of the soldiers involved in operations are Pakhtun like the Taliban. This has left the high command nervous about tackling the insurgents head-on for fear of causing rifts within the ranks — a number of soldiers have already refused to fight their fellow tribesmen or have surrendered and deserted.

But that has not prevented the Army from engaging in operations that have been highly destabilising for tribal Pakhtun communities in the affected areas.

People fleeing the conflict in Swat and Bajaur — a tribal agency to the west on the border with Afghanistan — told me they felt that the Army was in fact targeting them and not the Taliban. Some argued this was because the Army feared Taliban reprisals. Others insisted they were being targeted because of their support for the Pakhtun nationalist Awami National Party that runs the North West Frontier Province government.

Allegations like these are difficult to confirm. What is certain, however, is that the Army has a long history of strategic incompetence stretching back to the very first war the country fought with India in 1948. On that occasion, tribal militants from the regions, who were by that point in open revolt against Pakistan, flooded into Indian-controlled Kashmir. After overwhelming Indian soldiers there, they promptly went on a binge of rape and looting while the Pakistani Army looked on.

Although better prepared in the subsequent 1965 war with India, Pakistan’s generals nevertheless found themselves out-witted by their counterparts in New Delhi.

The Army’s darkest moment, however, was the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. That conflict saw Pakistani troops involved in widespread acts of extermination against the indigenous Bengali population of what was at the time known as East Pakistan.

The Hamoodur Rahman Commission held in Pakistan following that war found many within the high command to be deeply negligent — the commander of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan was involved in sexual misconduct even as his troops were killing — and being killed — on the battlefield, the report revealed.

And in 1999, an ambitious Pakistani general by the name of Pervez Musharraf devised the tactically brilliant but strategically near-suicidal plan to invade Kargil, an Indian mountain post in Kashmir. That gamble nearly led to nuclear war, but Pakistanis got nine years of a Musharraf dictatorship instead.

How do we explain these failures? There can be no singular explanation, but if there is an overriding message it is that an unaccountable military, led by generals who have appropriated much of the country’s wealth and political power, cannot reliably undertake what should be its most important task: protecting its citizens.

Yet it would be unfair to criticise the Army without acknowledging the pivotal role played by its greatest patrons: the United States, and, to a lesser extent, China. Since the 1950s both countries have lavished military and political support on the Pakistani Army.

"Nobody has occupied the White House who is friendlier to Pakistan than me," is what US President Richard Nixon told Pakistan’s then military dictator Yahya Khan, at a 1970 dinner in Washington on the eve of the murderous war in East Pakistan. Former President George W Bush’s praise for Musharraf was equally effusive and outrageous.

And as with its other client regimes like Sudan, China has been happy to supply Pakistan with weapons without interfering in its politics.

The Pakistani Army has been rewarded by its foreign patrons despite its incompetence and unaccountability. In the process, civilian political life has been grossly stunted, leading the democratic process to be replaced by a crude kleptocracy where non-military leaders represent personal dynasties and not the people.

In this environment, Pakistan’s Army has struggled to meet the Taliban challenge.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.